- Girl Factory
- Tin House Books, 208 pp.
Factory of the Strange
Jim Krusoe’s novel Girl Factory begins with the rather quotidian line, “It was early on a Saturday morning.” This innocuous opener is so at odds with the rest of the book that it seems to lure in the reader before the sucker punch of oddities. And, in true Krusoeian fashion, the oddities are delightful. Jonathan, the adult narrator with a childlike perspective who has a penchant for endangered animals, attempts to free a genetically modified dog named Buck who might or might not be recreating Boris Spassky’s game against Anatoly Karpov during the 1973 Soviet Chess Championship. That’s before Jonathan discovers women cryogenically frozen in yogurt (would that be yogurgenically frozen?) in a basement. It’s the acidophilus in the yogurt that makes things work, apparently—using the type of wink, wink logic that would make slavish devotees to realism queasy.
The bulk of this short novel chronicles Jonathan’s attempts to free the women suspended in the vats of yogurt without killing them. He methodically moves through a scientific process of trial and error, using solutions as equally absurd as the problem of suspended animation vis-à-vis yogurt, but the solution techniques really aren’t the point—the point is examining Jonathan’s psychologically strange hyper-focus to save these women, coupled with his desire to have a partner. In case the link between freeing these women and Jonathan’s own attempts to woo women could be missed, one of the women in yogurt appears to resemble his first girlfriend. By way of this metaphor that exposes his loneliness, Jonathan generates some sympathy for his befuddled state, and this sympathy is heightened by his ham-fisted social attempts and his inability to conceal his actions using anything more than childish lies.
Although the tight structure of the novel might help readers disoriented by the quirks of the novel, it ends up as a liability. The plot line of the beginning of the novel, with the genetically modified smart-dog, disappears until the end, provoking too many questions in the middle about what happened to that dog, and finally wrapping up with a Jonathan-dog connection that seems so laughably unbelievable (even for a novel in this hyper-realist vein) that it must have been conceived as a joke. And the middle of the novel begins to bog down in Jonathan’s sequential, escalating attempts to revive the yogurt-immersed women. Each attempt gets him further yet still doesn’t lead him to the holy grail of his goal, and after so many similar disasters, the narrative tension begins to peter out.
That said, the novel inspires an avid desire to read to the end. It’s short enough to finish in one long sitting, and despite my modicum of resistance to Krusoe’s methods, he did embed a number two hook deep enough into my skull that it was impossible to shake free. This is at least partially due to his dark humor, which he slips in without drawing attention to it. The book doesn’t contain knee-slapping jokes as much as it contains a number of chuckle-eliciting lines. For instance, when an apartment manager discovers a certain character’s body lying underneath the table, he is quoted in the newspaper: “At first I thought he was just taking a quick nap . . . because he used to brag about how seamen learn to take quick naps at any time and in any place. But when I let myself into his apartment and poked him with my foot he didn’t move. He was a real gentleman, and I’m certain his death could not possibly be attributed to any apartment-related injury.” The juxtaposition of the rather morbid event of finding a corpse with absurd reasonings and silly defenses about apartment maintenance is typical of Krusoe’s humor, which he also demonstrates with names, such as a group named “Criminal Republicans for Jesus.”
But finally, the story sticks due to Krusoe’s creation of Jonathan, a character that doesn’t seem constructed with quirks that have been pegged on like donkey’s tails, but rather who organically exists as a socially aloof oddball who perceives the world in a somewhat solipsistic way. For instance, in the first chapter, Krusoe does a remarkable job describing a fight between Jonathan and a guard:
Suddenly at my side, the man grabbed a sleeve of my jacket and began to tug . . . “Stop,” I said, and gave him a slight shove to remind him that he should keep his distance. But it was this very gesture more than anything else that seemed to infuriate him. He lifted the scooping thing he had brought with him and began to wave it in the air, as if he were going to launch an attack from the sky. And then all at once he did: as swift as an eagle the scoop plunged down, narrowly missing my shoulder. Fearful for my safety, I whipped out the crowbar (which I’d almost forgotten about) and motioned that he should stay away. Incredibly, he still chose to ignore me, and when he raised his ludicrous weapon a second time, I was forced to give him a tap across the forehead, rather harder than I’d intended, I’m afraid, at which point he slumped in total silence to the ground, his legs twitching just a little.
Throughout this passage, Krusoe doesn’t deviate from Jonathan’s perspective but yet shows that his perspective is likely not how others would perceive the situation. Krusoe floodlights Jonathan’s attempts at self-justification with phrases like “slight shove,” “fearful for my safety,” “forced to give him a tap” and “I’m afraid,” and also Jonathan’s inability to perceive how his actions might be seen by someone else: “But it was this very gesture more than anything else than seemed to infuriate him.” All of this demonstrates Jonathan’s psychological distance from normal folk, and his possible unreliability as a narrator. Yet despite all that—or rather, because of it—the journey through this yogurt-saturated landscape with a kooky protagonist offers a kind of perverse satisfaction.